Our Say: County's impact fees are overdue for an increase

Published December 04, 2007
The Capitol

The impact fees the county charges developers - or, more exactly, makes developers collect from home buyers - are obviously going up next year. It's hard to see how government officials could do anything else after they look at the latest report from consultant James D. Nicholas. By now Mr. Nicholas is an old hand at studying the impact of new homes on government services, such as schools and roads. He did such a study in 1987, when then-County Executive O. James Lighthizer first talked the County Council into imposing impact fees. He did another in 2000, before the fees were adjusted.

His latest report, a draft of which was recently given to the county's Policy Advisory Board, shows that - with costs for roads and school construction skyrocketing - the impact fees now have even less connection to actual impact.

Developers are charged $969 per single-family home to pay for the impact on roads. Mr. Nicholas estimates that this is less than 9 percent of the actual impact, which is more than $11,000.

If you go by Mr. Nicholas' figures, the $3,810 charge for impact on schools is a bit closer to reality. It's more than 20 percent of the actual impact, which is more than $18,000.

Altogether, Mr. Nicholas says, Anne Arundel County has some of the lowest impact fees in the state, charging developers about 45 percent of the state average for roads and 51 percent of the state average for schools. That's just untenable.

The stage is now set for County Executive John Leopold, who is expected to propose higher rates in the next two months. Then, he said, there will be a "collaborative process" with the County Council to "determine what the fairest number is, striking a balance with infrastructure needs and the concern about affordable housing."

We endorse an increase in impact fees. The county has fallen behind, and it isn't fair to put so much of the burden of new development on the existing taxpayers.

In the short term, the timing won't be opportune. The housing industry is in a dead swoon, and to collect impact fees, you have to have someone building new houses. But housing will eventually recover, bringing with it the need to pay for new schools and improved roads.

Mr. Leopold and the council ought to check the rules for spending the money raised by impact fees. In the past, embarrassingly large amounts of it wasn't used for schools and roads because of restrictive rules about what improvements it could fund.

Even more importantly, county officials must be sure higher impact fees don't bar the creation of the moderately priced starter homes needed by young professionals. Such housing is already scarce; we've already got enough teachers, police and firefighters commuting from elsewhere because they can't afford to live in Anne Arundel County. Exceptions to the higher fees may be needed for work force housing.

(Revised Dec 2007)